Virtual reality is finding application to many fields, and among them is chemistry. For example, in the spring of 2020, Harvard University used Oculus Quest VR headsets in an undergraduate-level biochemistry class to help students to observe, manipulate, and build molecules and explore the shapes of proteins and drug compounds. (Here’s a link to the recently-published paper in the Journal of Chemical Education. Unfortunately, you’ll have to buy the full-text article, or get a copy via your local public or university library. Remember, librarians are your friends!)
VR use in chemistry is not just for students learning about the basics of chemistry, however; it also has application to research scientists working in the laboratory. A good example of how social VR can be used in cutting-edge, collaborative chemistry research is Nanome, a startup co-founded in 2015 by some engineering students at University of California San Diego, who saw a need for 3D visualization tools to help medicinal and computational chemists and structural biologists reduce their time to market and increase the efficacy of new drugs (a process that can cost billions of dollars per drug).
Nanome recently announced the closure of a successful funding round raising $3 million from several venture capital firms:
“Since our founding, we’ve had a compelling vision about what scientific collaboration should look like and a goal to equip our real-life superheroes — scientists who are discovering ways to combat disease, address climate change and improve people’s lives — with an intuitive virtual interface where they can experiment, design and learn at the nanoscale,” said Steve McCloskey, Nanome CEO and Founder in a statement. “We made huge strides toward realizing that vision in 2020, and this funding gives us firepower to increase our impact, support more research initiatives and continue to revolutionize biotech and scientific research.”
Initially starting as a visualization tool to facilitate research and development by medicinal and computational chemists and structural biologists, Nanome has grown as an open platform for virtual collaboration. During the pandemic organizations have used Nanome’s platform “to assess candidate molecules’ ability to bind viral proteins in 3D,” the company notes.
In fact, Nanome became the first American company to join a coordinated supercomputing project funded by the European Union (EU) Commission to screen chemical libraries for potential activity against SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19! (Here’s the press release.)
And the best part is, you can try Nanome out for free! Nanome is free to download for personal use via Steam, Viveport, SideQuest, and the Oculus store, supporting the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Valve Index headsets. For academic or commercial use there are various licensing structures; for more details, visit the pricing page on their website.
For more information on Nanome, visit their website or follow the company on social media: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, or YouTube. I will be adding Nanome to my ever-expanding comprehensive list of social VR and virtual worlds.
UPDATE July 9th, 2021: Here’s an interesting article about Nanome, from a website called LabCompare: VR for Science: Drug Discovery and More in the Virtual World, with some great illustrations!
UPDATE Oct. 14th, 2021: A Spt. 7th, 2021 Wall Street Journal article by Sara Castellanos titled Virtual Reality Puts Drug Researchers Inside the Molecules They Study (original; archived version) is a highly recommended read if you want to learn more about Nanome and how it is being used in research.